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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Happy Turkey Day

One of the benefits of being an American married to a non-American is that I occasionally get to see my own country through different eyes. In fact, I frequently get all kinds of comments on America and Americans from The Missus, both welcome and otherwise. Of course, she likewise gets the benefit of occasionally hearing my own insights about her country, again both welcome and otherwise.

One annual event of cultural divergence is Thanksgiving. It’s the one major American holiday (unless you count the Fourth of July) that the United States celebrates and the rest of the world does not. (Okay, Canada has a Thanksgiving, but on a different date.) So I sometimes get questions that I never thought about before, like “Should we buy Thanksgiving gifts for your family?”

But non-Americans don’t have to marry an American to get interesting insights into American culture. Most people in the world have a regular portal to American culture because of the ubiquity of American TV and movies. I don’t think there is a Yank alive who has journeyed abroad and not had the strange experience of confronting foreigners totally familiar with the nefarious intrigues of Dallas or, more currently, the shenanigans of Friends. The cultural leakage extends to the movies, where the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger tend to be more popular abroad than at home. This is at best a mixed blessing.

When I spent a year as a student in France in the 1970s, I was shocked to find that most young French people I encountered believed quite matter-of-factly that the Mafia ran everything in America, that violent crime was rampant everywhere, and that there was open racial warfare in the streets across the nation. An American, of course, knows better than this. He knows that this sort of activity is largely confined to New York City. We know that because we saw Escape From New York.

Anyway, this all got me to thinking about what non-Americans must think of Thanksgiving based on what they have seen at the movies. Frankly, they probably don’t have much of an impression since they probably don’t see a lot of movies that deal with Thanksgiving. I mean Stallone has yet to do Rambo IV: Carving Up the Turkey. But let’s pretend that movies about Thanksgiving did get exported abroad. What kind of impression would people have of this warmest and most familial of American holidays?

They would think that it was some kind of self-inflicted torture, that’s what. Let’s face it, the message in most movies about Thanksgiving are downright negative. I’m not talking about the made-for-television movie A Day for Thanks on Waltons’ Mountain. I’m talking about 1995’s Home for the Holidays in which, among much other family strife, Robert Downey Jr. manages to drop a turkey on his snooty sister’s lap. Or 1987’s Planes, Trains & Automobiles, in which a beleaguered Steve Martin spends the whole movie trying to get home in time to spend the holiday with his family while perpetually tormented by loutish John Candy. Or 1996’s The War at Home, in which deranged Vietnam vet Emilio Estevez takes up combat against his father Martin Sheen. Or the same year’s The Myth of Fingerprints, in which Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner preside over a bickering household that exposes one shocking revelation after another.

Even when Thanksgiving isn’t the central theme of the movie, it’s still a pretty grim time in the movies. In 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Thanksgiving dinners bookend a couple of dreary years for Mia Farrow and family. That same year Jane Fonda woke up in bed with a corpse on Thanksgiving morning in The Morning After. And who can forget the mayhem when Pauly Shore went home with his college girlfriend for Thanksgiving in 1993’s Son In Law?

If all we knew about Thanksgiving was what we saw in the movies, there’s no way we would want anything to do with this holiday. (In fairness, as far as holidays go, Halloween may have an even worse rap, movie-wise.) Fortunately, I suspect that in real life things go a bit more smoothly in most American homes on this day.

But if your appetite for a truly dysfunctional American family fracas is still not sated for this year’s Thanksgiving, then just turn on the television news and see what is going on in Florida. The traditional cathartic family emotional holiday battle this year has finally gone national.

-S.L., 23 November 2000

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